[This article was originally published at Christianity Today on June 1, 2004.]
When I was in the sixth grade, some of our school library books had words crossed out with black markers—words that teachers thought would harm children who read them. Even Mark Twain received this treatment. To me, it seemed somehow unholy to stain the pages of someone’s story in that way, to delete words the author had chosen. Those black bars were an eyesore, and they distracted me from the story.
The teachers thought they were doing me a favor, but they were taking away from my experience of a worthy work of art. Worse, those black bars only threw fuel on my childish curiosity; I was preoccupied with exposing what had been inked out.
Now we have the ClearPlay DVD player, which lets the user edit certain content from films. It’s intended to provide concerned viewers—especially parents—with alternate versions of movies that have been made “safe” and “clean.” But I believe it’ll only make kids morepreoccupied with those certain elements of movies that parents are hoping to eliminate. If you cover up part of a painting, you increase the allure of the section you’re covering up. So it’s best to keep kids from seeing that painting at all, until they’re mature enough to deal with it responsibly.
Why should we show children movies that weren’t intended for them? There is a lifetime of good family movies available; let families spend time with those rather than settling for sorely compromised versions of movies that were intended for a different audience.
If you start chopping up movies meant for grownups and showing them to children, you’ll succeed in shielding them from excessive elements, but you’ll also deprive them of the experience of art the way it was meant to be seen.
Ultimately, I think the CleanPlay idea is flawed on three fundamental levels:
1. It suggests that only certain “corrupting elements” are inappropriate for young viewers.
Specifically, it signifies a preoccupation with eliminating sex, violence, and bad language, as if those were somehow “special” offenses. If we are corrupted by these three unholy behaviors, are we not also corrupted by hearing a character lie? What about jealousy? Pride? Self-righteousness? Covetousness? Idolatry? Personally, I’m far more distraught by seeing a character deceive another character than I am by hearing somebody call somebody else a bad name. But ClearPlay has no setting for “Deceit.”
Many movies include excessive misbehavior, sometimes even glorifying it. Such movies should be ignored, not altered. There are goodmovies that portray sex, violence, and foul language too. If such elements are a meaningful part of the story—for biblical examples, look no further than David and Bathsheba, the Song of Solomon, the death of John the Baptist, or Christ calling the Pharisees names—theyshould be part of the final work. To cut misbehavior would render the stories pointless. One of art’s primary functions is to reflect the world, goodness and bad, in a context that invites us to consider, interpret, accept, or reject its presentations.
2. It suggests that a work of art is open for customization by the individual viewer.
Artists have reasons for making their work a certain way. To have someone else snip up the work disrespects their efforts. Such censorship interrupts the intended “flow” of the film. It eliminates vital details. Confusion may result. The theme may lose its potency.
If ClearPlay proves popular and successful, we’ll soon see variations that exclude other “offensive” elements—like prayer, mentions of God, the name of Jesus. We might end up seeing the TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth available in different formats—for those who want the whole story, for those who want just the miracles but not Jesus’ claims of divinity, for those who don’t want to bother with that discomforting crucifixion scene. If customization develops a heavy demand, we might even see software that will embellish the violence and the sex, increasing them to more explicit levels.
3. It suggests it’s better to “see no evil” than to learn to recognize and deal with evil.
Censorship does not keep us from doing evil—it just blocks us from seeing it. If we develop a “cover your eyes” response to bad behavior, we are not developing a strength of spirit that resists sin. We are simply ignoring sin, and thus remaining weak and vulnerable. Jesus says it is not what goes into a man that corrupts him, but what proceeds from him that corrupts him. Scripture exhorts us to put on the “full armor of God” so we might resist the schemes of the devil. It does not exhort us to avert our eyes whenever someone’s misbehaving.
This doesn’t mean we should seek corrupt things to absorb. It simply means we must train ourselves and our children to interpret what we see and respond to it with discipline and discernment. If we can’t deal with the misbehavior we encounter in films, how will we respond to it in the real world?
Grownups should also pay close attention to their own voices of conscience, showing maturity and wisdom by walking away from those things that cause them to stumble. It is also the responsibility of mature adults to protect young, vulnerable, untrained minds from encountering things they are not yet prepared to process, consider, interpret and respond to. To buy technology that claims to do it for us is irresponsible, naïve, and ultimately … a cop-out.